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The Play-Goer: It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play

The Colonial Players’ fresh take on this classic offers laughs, emotion and good doses of nostalgia

photo by Colburn Images Tim Sayles, Jason Vellon, Erin Hill and Dann Alagna plus Mary Rogers (not shown) perform all the roles in Colonial Players’ It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play.

       What’s Christmas season without nostalgia? What’s nostalgia except a look back at how things were? Or, for George Bailey of Bedford Falls, a look back at how things might have been?

            You know the story from the initially panned but now classic 1946 movie starring James Stewart and Donna Reed. George Bailey sacrifices his dreams of getting out of his small town to keep the bank from the hands of the evil Mr. Potter and help out the folks who otherwise would have less than they already do.

            But have you seen it as a radio play, with an icing of fantasy adding a topping of fun?

            In The Colonial Players’ production, five actors perform all the characters, changing voices and emotions on a dime in front of prop microphones set up at the round stage’s perimeter. At center stage is a table full of sound effects, from slamming doors to honking horns to wind and thunder. It’s cleverly choreographed by director Scott Nichols, with each sound performed on cue by the busy cast.

            Nichols’ choice to not have the actors use scripts seems awkward at first — after all, it is a radio show — but that awkwardness fades as we see the radio actors get more and more into their characters. It’s fun watching the behind-the-scenes reactions when a cue is seemingly missed or a wrong step taken. Was it a real mistake or scripted? This cast makes the most of it either way. The cleverness of the play, those sound effects and the ad jingles never take away from the core of our story: the true emotions with which these fine actors infuse each and every character.

            They don’t give us character impersonations from the movie; they give us real people. Jason Vellon as George carries the weight of the show, moving from frustrated, surly and even cruel to caring and committed — in both characters making us care about George.

            Tim Sayles alternates from the emcee to the gruff Mr. Potter to Uncle Billy and several others with alacrity, making each voice distinct.

            Erin Hill’s Mary Bailey moves from schoolgirl innocence when she meets George to loving partner when she becomes his wife, then transforms into the prim old maid librarian George discovers on his journey into a non-George past. Hill also hilariously flirts with the live audience as she seeks approval for each sound effect she delivers.

            The terrific Mary Rogers shows impressive range as she animates the sultry Violet Bick — who has long had a crush on George — George’s mother Rose Bailey and the ultra-cute Zuzu, his daughter.

            As Clarence, the angel struggling to get his wings who leads George into what Bedford Falls would have been had George never been born, Dann Alagna avoids the easy caricature for  a funny yet warm guide. Alagna also slides easily into the cutest-of-cute children’s voices.

            Costumes by Christina McAlpine are perfect for the 1940s’ era, and Ernie Morton’s lighting design offers a nice variety to the proceedings, especially when George and Clarence enter the darkest part of their journey together.

            If you’ve seen the movie — and who hasn’t — you’ll still want to get over to 108 East Street in downtown Annapolis this weekend. In this fresh take on the classic, you’ll get laughs, a lot of emotion and a good dose of that nostalgia that helps each Christmas become a memory.

            Get your tickets: The special two-week holiday run closes this Sunday.

            Producer: Tim Brown. Assistant director: Ben Carr. Stage manager: Bernadette Arvidson. Set designer: Krisztina Vanyi. Sound designer: Andy Serb.

           ThFSa 8pm, SaSu 2pm. (90 mins w/no intermission.) The Colonial Players, Annapolis, $23, rsvp: www.thecolonialplayers.org.